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Obama Lost, Obama Found

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Illustration by Jason Lee  

As Galston points out, both Clinton and Ronald Reagan campaigned on and carried with them to Washington cohesive theories of the case: not simply proposals, but analyses and narratives about the transformation of the economy, America’s place in the world, and the role of government (or lack thereof) in adapting to and shaping the future. For Obama, the absence of a theory of case caused him no harm in 2008. But his failure in office to articulate one has been more damaging. In the debates that have dominated his maiden year, it has left his plans looking formless and untethered, and made it far more difficult to frame them in a fashion maximally compelling to the public or politically effective on Capitol Hill.

“What Obama is learning,” says a prominent Democrat and Clinton-administration veteran, “is that it’s easier to get elected out of nowhere than it is to govern from nowhere.”

The first object lesson in the dangers of Obama’s theory-of-the-caselessness is the largest and most important piece of legislation that he has yet to enact: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—a.k.a., the $787 billion stimulus bill. Hatched by his advisers even before he took office, the bill was designed to inject a large amount of dough into the economy quickly to stave off the possibility of a horrendous recession turning into a second Great Depression. Its passage in mid-February was a major victory right out of the chute for the new administration, but its longer-term fallout has proved considerably less salutary.

The field general for the fight to pass the stimulus was Emanuel, and the strategy he fashioned bore all the hallmarks that have marked his tenure from that point since. Emanuel, who served first in the Clinton White House and then as a three-term congressman, is one of the few top Obama advisers with experience at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Shrewd and combative, hyperactive and profane, partisan to his core, he is above all a bone-deep pragmatist—a temperamental affinity between him and Obama that (for now) has trumped all the other differences between their sensibilities.

With the stimulus, Emanuel’s devotion to the art of the possible caused him to make two fateful choices. The first involved the proportions of the package. Though Christina Romer, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, believed that its optimal size would have been $1.2 trillion, Emanuel scotched that figure as unpalatable to Congress and settled on a price tag almost identical to what was later approved. (When Paul Krugman moaned that the package was too small, Emanuel scoffed, “How many bills has he passed?”) The second choice, driven by similar imperatives, was to forgo having the White House draft the legislation and instead outsource its cobbling-together to the Democratic leadership on the Hill.

Nearly ten months later, the broad consensus verdict among economists is that the stimulus has been a kind of success. That, as the New York Times reported the other day, it “is helping an economy in free fall a year ago to grow again and shed fewer jobs than it otherwise would.” That “Mr. Obama’s promise to ‘save or create’ about 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010 is roughly on track, though far more jobs are being saved than created.”

All of which is true enough. But viewed from other angles, the stimulus looks more like the Obama administration’s original sin. With unemployment now in double digits and apparently headed higher still, the dismissal of Romer’s $1.2 trillion figure seems a glaring screwup purely on policy grounds. And in the absence of a strong hand by the White House, the bill degenerated into substantive incoherence, failing to focus not only on job creation but also, as the Earth Institute’s Jeffrey Sachs argues, on any of the structural reformations—from the conversion to a low-carbon energy supply to updating America’s infrastructure—that would benefit the American economy most and that Obama touted in his campaign.

The political consequences of the bill have been equally problematic. “Obama came in in January with a 70 percent approval rating,” notes a senior Democratic strategist. “Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the rest of the congressional Democrats were around 40, so the White House managed to attach itself to a body of people who were 30 points less popular than they were and allow their fate to be determined by the performance of Congress. One of the reasons Obama got elected was to fix Washington, to make the city work for everyday people again. Turning this over to the guys the public didn’t trust was, on its face, a crazy thing.”

The decision to defer to Pelosi and Reid produced other ill effects. When Democrats on the Hill (inevitably) inserted dubious provisions in the package—the contraceptives, the resodding of the National Mall—the door was opened to the GOP mockery of the bill as a fatback-festooned grotesquerie concocted by drunk-at-the-punchbowl liberals. Not a single member of the opposition in the House, and a meager two in the Senate, voted for the bill. “That was the moment,” maintains Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, “when the party coalesced, when the battle lines were drawn.”


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